Monday, February 14, 2011

Being Harold Pinter (Belarus Free Theatre)

She has been arrested three times for participation in peaceful political and theatrical activities. –Natalia Kaliada

He has been arrested for his professional activities. –Vladimir Scherban

He has been assaulted during peaceful political action and arrested for his professional activities. –Dzianis Tarasenka

She was expelled from her last university year for her cooperation with BFT.

–Irene Iarochevich

He has been arrested for his professional activities and banned from applying for any official job in Belarus because of his cooperation with BFT. –Pavel Haradnitski

He has been put on trial for organizing peaceful political action, and currently, his plays are forbidden from being staged in Belarus. –Nikolai Khalezin

I went to go see Belarus Free Theatre’s Being Harold Pinter, and my head is swimming:

Being Harold Pinter cannot simply be described as a “great” or “amazing” play. Those terms—safe, and summarily applied to works as diverse as Les Miserable and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—do not adequately convey the call for immediate and necessary engagement with the piece on all levels. One truly feels like a small, wrinkled dick (ugly and inadequate) when the standard, post-show inquiry/exchange is made:

“Hey, John. How was the show, last night?”

Being Harold Pinter was amazing! You should go see it.”

Which isn’t to say that Being Harold Pinter isn’t amazing; it is. But this is not a play whose participants seek to be commended for “hitting that high note” or “getting there during that scene” or “really having the audience in stitches during that one part.” A four-star review on the standard scale is almost an insult. An honest-to-goodness “rave” of Being Harold Pinter would not simply be confined to the pages of a daily rag. It would be the immediate and unquestioned end of tyranny in all forms. Free expression would cease to threaten the marble ringed usurpers of power as they rush abdicate their ill-gotten thrones. You and I would feel ashamed to ever wish pain or suffering on each other, and those terms would be so alien as to send us rushing to our ancient dictionaries with magnifying glasses. Simply put: Being Harold Pinter is a wake-up call. How can you call it a great play when people have died in order for it to exist?

Being that it is a piece of theatre, however, acknowledgment of its success in that medium is necessary: Being Harold Pinter is ingeniously conceived, moving, acted with a formidable honesty, and staged creatively with only four red chairs to serve the storytelling.

However, as a massive “fuck you” to the despotic Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko, Being Harold Pinter’s true achievement is indefinable in that conventional sense.

Adaptor and director Vladmir Scherban has merged the terrifying (mostly late-career) plays of Harold Pinter, his infamous Nobel Lecture, and the sickening letters of Belarusian political prisoners into an indictment so awesome in its incisiveness that a genuine fear takes hold of you: This thing is truly dangerous for everyone involved. And you know that going in. But honestly, you really don’t know. You have no clue.

The piece starts benignly enough: We meet a man who—after suffering a bloody fall, being mistaken for dead, and learning he has earned the Nobel Prize in Literature—identifies himself as Harold Pinter. This Pinter confesses that his plays (in this case, The Homecoming and Old Times) were in actuality, revealed to him by the characters that inhabited them. Pinter admits that while he certainly provided a jumping off point for these beings—the first line of dialogue in each piece—what occurred after that was almost entirely out of his control. He confesses that he is simply a conduit through which characters reveal themselves.

This Harold Pinter’s ability to cede control of his art is a high, creative ideal for him. Anything less would mean dishonestly presenting crinkled facsimiles of men and women who move through their lives in storybook blocks of plotting; plays that are delicious upon consumption, but of little nutritional value.

What is terrifying to witness with this knowledge of Pinter’s process in mind however, is the feral state his characters revert to almost immediately: They are petty, mean, full of darkness and a need to dominate each other.

At this point, the desire to draw parallels between these Pinter pieces and the government of Belarus is an inescapable one: Is Pinter God? If Pinter is God, why does he not step in and end the suffering of his characters? If Pinter assumes too much dominance over his characters, does he become Lukashenko? Or, has Pinter’s absence meant Lukashenko can exist in the first place? Are we doomed by a lust for control or are we nothing but that lust given flesh and blood and countries to run?

As Being Harold Pinter continues—drawing from Pinter’s later, more overtly political works such as One For The Road and Ashes to Ashes—the entertaining of parallels is no longer just a thought to be considered at a safe, intellectual distance; Pinter simply becomes Belarus.

We now watch the unmotivated, near-pornographic torture of characters whose consequential slip-ups are never revealed, even to them. Men and women are burned, bitten, taunted, stripped naked, screamed at, and attacked just as Pinter allowed them to be. Why are we watching this? Why are we forced to hear their screams?

Belarus Free Theatre does not allow an escape from this pain. Pinter’s text melts from the mouths of the actors, and what emerges from the bogs of slurry pooling at their feet is a howl from Belarus in its people’s own words: Letters from political prisoners detailing every conceivable injustice man has ever dealt to his brothers and sisters. It is a disgusting scene. It is also triumphant. An entire allegory has been elaborately constructed just to get to this moment. We have been tricked. We thought we were going to see a play but what we really purchased tickets for was a confession made by those who have nothing to atone for. What we should have seen is Alexander Lukashenko begging for forgiveness from every person he has ever harmed. What we should have seen is not this play. We should have seen Belarus Free Theatre’s production of Everything is Great in Our Country and We Get to Go Home Next Week.

The quotations at the top of this piece are taken from the program. At the end of each artist’s bio is a defiant statement of commitment to the piece we have just witnessed. Every one of them has been to prison, been beaten, forced to leave their country, and all for the sake of a play.

And yet, as quickly as I have typed that last sentence, I realize it is incorrect. It is not all for the sake of a play. It is for the sake of life. It is for the sake of peace. It is for the sake of beauty and love.

Being Harold Pinter is amazing. You should go see it.


-John Taflan


  1. "what emerges from the bogs of slurry pooling at their feet is a howl from Belarus in its people’s own words" - this is the first sentence that has actually helped me process the experience of seeing this play. there's still something nagging at me about the fact that it is indeed a play, and thus asks to be judged as such, and as such, i had a tough time connecting to it. as a play, that is. as a howl, i get it. anyway, i dont know if "taflan is growing as a writer" but i do know that he wrote this one real good.